Saturday, January 23, 2021

Right to information is greater than regime, Honourables!

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Paras Shah, the son of ex-King Gyanendra Shah, used to be the most powerful person so much so that anything he uttered was taken as law. Singer Pravin Gurung died due to the reckless driving of Paras Shah at Durbar Marg, Kathmandu, but no one dared to take action against Shah. He used to beat up, threaten and intimidate people at will. All of his crimes were mere stuffs of jokes, tea talk and humour. Maybe a person turns blind with absolute power. Shah may not have an inkling that he would have to face a day like this. Time flies! You can compare that Shah and this Shah for yourself.

Khum Bahadur Khadka was another leader drunk with power some years ago. His wish used to be command for many. Corrupt civil servants used to brief him about development project details saying- Hon. Minister, the budget for this project is around this many billions, you will get this much cut. Khadka's "Midas touch" turned an utterly incompetent person into a competent police officer. Civil servants and top police officers trembled with fear in front of him. But time is the strongest among them all. A "tiger" like Khadka was ensnared in Surya Nath Upadhyaya's trap. A case of corruption was filed against him. Plots were hatched to save him from prosecution but they failed. His career came to an ungraceful end and his empire crumbled. He withered away with worries while facing the corruption case. He started having kidney problems and soon after breathed his last.

I have been reporting corruption cases since 2000. At that time Surya Nath Upadhyaya was the Chief Commissioner at Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority. I have a huge respect for Mr. Upadhyaya. Upadhyaya told me one day, "Bimal, there is a huge pile of complaints against Bijay Gachchhadar. I led a rigorous investigation against him but couldn't find his property, residential home in Kathmandu, or bank balance. So, I couldn't take action against him. But keep watching, he will have to face justice one day." Few days ago, I read news about Bijaya Gachchhadar going to the court for deposition in the case of misuse of public lands. Time is indeed strong. Upadhyaya's wish came true. 

Dear Readers, 

Most of the leaders, ministers, parliamentarians and corrupt civil servants appear to be the followers of Khum Bahadur Khadka and Bijaya Gachchhadar. Pay attention to people talking at teashops and public vehicles. You will get to feel people's anger against current leaders, ministers, parliamentarians, and civil servants. Few days ago, I was walking from Lokantar's office at Kupondole to Bhaisepati when I got a chance to strike up a conversation with a commoner. He told me, "Sir, I see you are a journalist. Mark my words, all these leaders, ministers, parliamentarians and corrupt civil servants will meet the fate of Khadka and Gachchhadar. It will happen sooner than later. We then started talking about Dashain allowances. He added, "People are facing immense hardships with COVID, hunger and death of their loved ones. In such adverse circumstances, some people are trying to pocket Dashain allowances to make merriment. How can they be called people's representatives?" This person has only spoken the voice of the majority of people. We can hear such complaints against leaders and civil servants everywhere.

The government imposed lockdown in March to contain coronavirus transmission. I stayed home for some days and then went to the field for reporting with my colleague Sushil Panta. We saw a long line of daily wage labourers from Kalanki, Kathmandu to Mugling Bazaar, Chitwan. Carrying a bottle of water and a kilogram of beaten rice, they were walking from Kathmandu to faraway Bardiya, Dang and Kailali districts after losing their jobs. We wrote many field reports incorporating the plights of hundreds of labourers. All the way to Mugling we heard their painful tales. I opened my smartphone to scroll news stories featuring the Nepali game of thrones- Oli government about to be toppled, this person to be the next PM, this is the next strategy and so forth. The regime didn't even utter a word about the pains endured by the labourers.

We returned to Kathmandu and went out for another round of field reports. This time we went from Koteshwor, Kathmandu to Khurkot, Sindhuli. We met labourers walking all the way from Kathmandu to different districts in eastern Terai via Sindhuli in Nepalthok. Our tears swelled up seeing the poor labourers walking barefoot on hot pitch road, blood oozing out of their feet. We were lost for words. Those barefoot workers were unable to have their fill for several days. We recorded their stories and returned to Kathmandu that evening. National media in Kathmandu did not spare a word for these poor labourers. The only things we heard were like- These and these leaders met to hatch plots to remove Oli, this will happen tomorrow, this has happened and so on. The incumbent NCP leaders focused their whole attention in removing Oli from the post while the opposition party Nepali Congress remained fast asleep during the six months after Corona infected the country.

The pains of hungry, poor and voiceless people have remained unaddressed. People are suffering from disease and hunger with the spike of corona cases. They are fighting corona deaths. At this period of time when people are going through tremendous troubles in fighting disease and hunger, we had a nagging doubt whether parliamentarians and ministers are trying to make merriment with Dashain allowances. On September 29, my colleague Sushil Panta and I approached the parliament secretariat to submit a right to information application asking to provide the details about festival allowances taken by the parliamentarians. Making our estimates true, we received information that the parliamentarians had indeed taken Dashain allowances. On 16 October, Lokantar published an investigative news report with the title- "People remain hungry, parliamentarians and their personal assistants take Dashain allowances even during corona times". Sushil Panta, News Editor at Lokantar.com, wrote this news. He had written similar news last year at the same time. But the rulers had turned a deaf ear to it. On top of it, news about the then Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara being involved in violence against a woman came out and the rulers had a pretext to pay no attention to our news.

But circumstances have changed this year. First, coronavirus has brought life to a standstill. People are disappointed with the government. They are furious. Therefore, they are criticizing all the wrong deeds of the government, ministers and parliamentarians. Second, our efforts to bring the rulers to knees (i.e., forcing them to return allowances) was boosted by the follow up of a daily newspaper and people's pressure on social media platforms. Our news story had generated an initial buzz. It had left an impact. We decided to carry out continuous follow up to the news report and also write an editorial on it. Naya Patrika daily published the same news on its Saturday edition. National daily publishing front page news that we had broken the previous day was almost unprecedented practice in Nepal. Some people even said that Lokantar and Naya Patrika had an unannounced collaboration. But the fact is that we have not collaborated with that daily till date.

On Sunday we wrote a scathing editorial with the title- Honourables, show morality and return Dashain allowances. Public pressure piled up. Parliamentarians started to announce the return of allowances. Two major political parties NCP and Nepali Congress took a formal decision to return the allowances while PM KP Sharma Oli gave a clear message that he did not like the decision of distributing allowances at the time of the pandemic. The cabinet meeting decided to deposit allowances taken by the ministers to the COVID Treatment Fund and also asked the locally elected representatives to refuse allowances and return them if they had already taken it. Cabinet decision to return allowances would not have been possible without PM's nod. PM Oli deserves kudos for this initiative. The same evening Speaker Agni Sapkota issued a press release thanking the parliament members of the major parties and also announced that he would not take allowances. Speaker Sapkota took a correct decision even late.

Few days ago, former PM Dr. Baburam Bhattarai went to Gorkha district and gave a bombshell statement. He said, "PM Oli, NCP Chairman and former PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda", and Nepali Congress President and former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba have embezzled 9 billion rupees in Budhi Gandaki Hydro Project. I can furnish evidences." I am not close to Dr. Bhattarai. As far as I know him, he may have thousands of weaknesses but I have not seen or heard him inciting others to embezzle funds. I had written an investigative news story in Republica daily about 2.7 million rupees worth expenditure for a feast organized in PM's official residence at the time Dr. Bhattarai was the PM. He personally met me and regretted for the wastage of state coffers. Dr. Bhattarai's accusation against three major leaders of the country is serious. The leaders have denied the accusation but people are willing to know what Dr. Bhattarai would do if he has to submit evidences in the future. The same Dr. Bhattarai, who didn't hesitate to level such a serious accusation, limited himself to a tweet on the issue of returning Dashain allowances at a time when people are suffering from hunger and disease due to COVID.  Respectable leader Bhattarai who asks others to abide by austerity, transparency and honesty should have been the first among the lot to show his sincerity by returning allowances. People want to know why he failed in that regard. However, Dr. Bhattarai's Janata Samajwadi Party has announced to refuse festival allowances. 

Karma strikes back 

At time I feel that the shameless leaders and civil servants don't give a fig to news reports pointing at their anomalies. We can provide various examples where media has published factual news stories but administrators have ignored them. Leaders, ministers and civil servants are focused on looting the state coffers, bagging lucrative contracts and taking cuts just like Khum Bahadur Khadka and Bijaya Gachchhadar used to do at their prime. Our evidence-based news has not touched the rulers. Corruption, bribery and illegal setting have not stopped. Middlemen, brokers and corrupt people are still ruling the roost. What can we do then? Stop writing? Stop speaking out? Quit journalism? A debate on this issue is required.

The scribe is adamant- we shouldn't quit journalism. Let's continue writing. Let's find more evidences to write investigative news stories. Let's spread the news on social media and take common people onboard. This is the necessity of the day. Corrupt people will be happy if we quit writing. They will rule the roost if we run away disappointed. Continuously writing, finding evidences and being sincere will force the rulers to capitulate. The latest example is the return of Dashain allowances by ministers and parliamentarians during COVID crisis. Nothing is stronger than time. We have to wait, be patient. Shameless parliamentarians would not have returned allowances if Lokantar.com and leading dailies had not exposed the fact, thereby generating public pressure.

Dashain allowance issue is merely the latest one. Embezzlement in procurement of corona fighting equipment during COVID crisis is another burning issue. Many news stories have exposed the procurement of corona controlling equipment in higher prices than actual. But there has been no action against the wrongdoers; no one has even inquired about it. Media has been exposing various anomalies. But the authorities concerned have turned deaf ears to them. The only alternative is to keep waiting because time is the strongest. Current rulers may meet the fate of Shah, Khadka and Gachchhadar- this prediction of the man on the street can turn into reality soon. If the rulers improve themselves, it will be for their own good. But if they keep indulging in corruption and make merriments while people are fighting hunger and disease their destruction is inevitable. One has to reap what one sows. 

That news, this news 

Lokantar broke the news about parliamentarians taking Dashain allowances and the news had a huge impact. While discussing about this impact, the scribe remembers another news published on Lokantar three years ago when the then Pushpa Kamal Dahal "Prachanda" government took a decision on the pressure of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. Lokantar's investigative news story had a positive impact on overturning the decision. It was an issue of the appointment of the Inspector General of Police (IGP). The candidates for the post of the IGP were Nabaraj Silwal who had the backing of incumbent PM Oli and Jaya Bahadur Chand who had the support of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba. Silwal was senior than Chand but the then government recommended Chand to be the police chief. Subsequently, Silwal filed a writ at the Supreme Court of Nepal. The Court stayed the government decision. The issue generated huge controversy. Two other DIGs Prakash Aryal and Bam Bahadur Bhandari also were eligible for the the post of the IGP. But the main competition was between Silwal and Chand. The executive and the judiciary were at loggerheads when the Supreme Court stayed the government's decision to appoint Chand.

For Lokantar.com, the scribe conducted 10 days of research and prepared an investigative news story. Lokantar's investigation found that among four DIGs in the race for the IGP, Aryal had secured the highest marks in performance assessment. Find the link to the news story here. That story generated many positive and negative comments. The government formed a committee to study the performance assessment of all four candidates. The committee came to the conclusion that Aryal stood first in the performance assessment. Government's conclusion and Lokantar's finding were the same and Aryal was thus appointed chief of the police. Then then Chief Justice Sushila Karki was accused of favouring Nabaraj Silwal and issuing orders with ill-intention. An impeachment motion was filed against her in the parliament. Later that motion was withdrawn.

These incidents prove that rulers take wrong decision every now and then. They don't take decisions based on thorough study. They realize their mistakes only after media publishes investigative news stories. Rulers came to their senses while appointing the police chief only after Lokantar published investigative news report. This time too Lokantar broke the news and then other media followed up with the story, thus creating public pressure. Rulers realized their mistakes only then. News portals are having more impact than the conventional daily newspapers. Online media news links can become viral in a jiffy. Thus, news portals are far ahead than newspapers in terms of impact.

Respected journalist Matrika Poudel's tweet about the return of Dashain allowance establishes the importance of news portal's impact. He has congratulated the writer and Sushil Panta for publishing investigative news story about parliamentarians taking Dashain allowances. He has mentioned that print media followed up the story published on Lokantar and shaped people's opinions. Taranath Dahal, CEO of Freedom Forum, and Bishnu Rijal, Central Committee member of NCP, too have congratulated the writer and Lokantar team for this expose. Media needs to take a pro-active stance to leave positive impact.

Another example of media having an impact on stopping irregularity can be found in Karnali Province. Sher Bahadur Thapa, Karnali Province Correspondent, learnt about irregularity in funds that the provincial government was about to distribute in the name of grants. He then wrote a news story entitled- "Millions of rupees to be distributed to near ones of ministers as grants". The provincial government mentioned news published on Lokantar and stopped distribution of grants.

All the above-mentioned investigative news stories were published with the help of right to information law. The only message of investigative stories is- Information is more powerful than rulers (leaders, ministers, parliamentarians) and their guns. Repeat after me- Long live right to information law! Long live investigative news!

Published on 23 October 2020

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